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Farewell academia: packing up

Farewell, Academic Research!

“So long, and thanks for all the fish.”—We need to change the way organizations manage the transition from academia to industry for individuals, innovations and clinical outcomes.

By Allison Sharrow, PhD

Important healthcare innovations can founder due to systemic hurdles that hinder clinical advancements. By supporting researchers transitioning from academia and fostering a robust commercial life science sector, regions like Pittsburgh can harness innovation to drive future economic growth and healthcare advancements.

For the first time in my adult career, I am no longer an academic researcher ceaselessly manipulating cells to gain insights into diseases. My unbounded excitement for new challenges reminds me of how I felt when I decided in 2002 that I wanted to be a scientist instead of a clinician. Since then, there had been no looking back. But now that I no longer have billions of cells relying on me for their survival, I have the luxury of reflecting on what college-sophomore Allison thought she was getting herself into.

I embarked on this career path because I love learning new things, and this is a profession with curiosity actually in the job description. The thrill of looking at a piece of data and realizing that you now have a completely new insight into something that no one else in the word knows is addictive. It makes you put aside other things—your family, your health, your financial well-being—in the quest for your next fix. It can easily become all-consuming because the rush is so intellectually fulfilling.
Sadly, these moments are brief and heartbreakingly infrequent. To achieve them, you must toil through endless hours, weeks, months, and even years of experiment optimization, with ceaseless repetitions incorporating minute incremental changes so that you can finally obtain a result that is often less of an “Ah-hah!” and more of a “Huh?”. By the time you get to a result, your experiment is often so contrived that you’re then left wondering if it is even relevant to human disease anymore. But you do it anyway, over and over again, because that rush is so amazing.

As I progressed in my career, I became more cognizant of how these results could help people, so I directed my education and research towards the goal of improving patients’ lives. But even with all the bench-to-bedside hype promoted within academic institutions, they are often ineffective vehicles for driving meaningful clinical changes. For a number of bureaucratic and economic reasons, not a single one of the five new treatment approaches I discovered has ever been taken to clinical trials, and my experience is not unique. Universities and the government have taken notice of this problem, but more should be done to ensure that promising healthcare innovations reach patients in need.

Over my 20-year career, I have seen academic research shift in many deeply troubling ways. My training and early experience were dedicated to the rigorous and tenacious pursuit of the truth. It was better to be “scooped” than to be wrong, and getting caught manipulating data swiftly and ruthlessly killed entire labs. As a graduate student, I was stunned when the lab where a classmate was studying shuttered suddenly because of a few individuals’ misconduct. Even though he and others were innocent and unaware of the wrongdoing, they were considered “tainted” by their colleagues’ actions and struggled to find new positions.

When I set out on this career path, money and faculty positions were plentiful and career advancement was all but guaranteed— along with it the ability to provide a good living for your family. As time went on, though, the number of PhDs awarded by U.S. institutions increased dramatically—by 44% over a 20-year period. [1][2] Academic full-time appointments have failed to keep pace, with numbers only increasing by 19% during the same time.

This growth is a good thing overall, but the mismatch between supply and demand has created an academic career bottleneck that traps highly qualified and educated individuals in low-paying training positions: “a postdoc purgatory.” Not surprisingly, women and underrepresented minorities are disproportionately impacted by this problem. [2]

With increased competition, publication counts have become the primary metric that determines an individual’s career success. So we are seeing things like paper mills and individuals manipulating the system to get their names on as many as two papers per day. [3] With the lessening of consequences for malfeasance, data manipulation is also becoming more common and higher profile. A less obvious but more insidious effect is that experiments are designed and executed to tell a story rather than to test a hypothesis. Although I love a good story, I did not become a scientist to be a storyteller. I became a scientist to reveal new truths that could help people.

None of these problems will surprise others in academia. These are issues we have lamented internally for more than a decade. Transformative solutions could be adopted if the institutions were willing to overhaul the system, but such changes involve risks to existing stakeholders and rule-makers. As a result, only token, ineffective efforts have been adopted. Their ultimate effect is typically only to create more work for already burned-out scientists. Mental health in academic researchers is terrible on average and even worse in underrepresented groups, such as women. [4] Talented individuals are beginning to leave academia in greater numbers, and graduate programs are starting to steer their students towards alternatives to academic careers. Leadership is starting to notice the shift. But given our handling of other existential crises, change may be slow to come.

In the meantime, we should ensure that researchers seeking to leave academia are supported in this transition so that their extensive skills and training can effectively deliver impactful changes to society. This will require a robust commercial life science economy to complement the academic pipeline. We know from the experiences of other industries—including software design—that a critical mass of talent and opportunities are required to maintain a vibrant regional hub.

Pittsburgh’s nationwide standing as a healthcare leader positions the city to capitalize on abundant local life science innovations to drive regional economic growth. But to efficiently allocate our local resources, we need promising scientific advances to break through the overwhelming noise produced by a dysfunctional academic research pipeline.

I will be featuring stories and interviews with entrepreneurs and other innovators to promote their work and help separate the signal from the noise. If you are a founder, I want to hear from you about the challenges you faced and how you successfully overcame them.

[1] Data on PhD awards over time:
[2] Data on academic appointments and PhDs awarded:
[3] Analysis of excessive publication counts:
[4] Data for mental health crisis in science (the cohorts studied are grad students):

Allison Sharrow, PhD, covers the transition of innovations and professionals from academia to the healthcare industry. As a research assistant professor, she witnessed firsthand the challenges and opportunities in this process. Seen through her eyes, readers will get greater insight into how and why some innovations succeed while others perish.